The Cool Cyclist

In Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” the fascinating antiheroine, Amy, describes the “Cool Girl” – the archetype of a young woman who schools herself to be a cheerful exemplar of female perfection, so far as men are concerned. The Cool Girl is:

“a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes and burping..jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2..Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”

Amy takes the rejection of the Cool Girl role too far, as you may know from the book or the film. However, surely any feminist would agree that she is right to reject it: “You don’t get what you want. It’s pretty clear. Sure, he may be happy, he may say you’re the coolest girl ever, but he’s saying that because he got his way.”

Why, then, would anyone take on the Cool Girl role? To hook your man, of course; but I think there’s another aspect to it. We are tribal. We seek to ingratiate ourselves with those in power, and that often means aligning our beliefs and behaviours with theirs. As men get further up the hierarchy at work, they leave their jeans and T-shirts behind and go to work in suits. People change their accents to match those with the greatest clout, whether that means the working-class boy gaining a few aitches when he goes to work in the City, or the reverse process happening when a gently-reared child goes up to Big School.

Thus we see the phenomenon of the Cool Cyclist. The Cool Cyclist is cheerfully accepting of the parlous lack of safe routes for cyclists on the roads today. He (and it normally is a he) states that everyone is responsible for his or her own safety, and that if you cycle with care and attention and the appropriate protective equipment, you should be safe. Or at least, reasonably safe; accidents will happen, he says – in the same kind of tone that you’d use when telling a child, “Now I told you not to play with doors, didn’t I?” when he’s talking about some poor woman being flattened by a HGV. He quite understands how people might object to money being spent on new cycle infrastructure; after all, governments have to prioritise. He nods along sagely when people complain about “bloody cyclists”, being the first to loudly condemn those who break the rules, real or imaginary. “I’m not that sort of cyclist,” says the Cool Cyclist. “I’m no trouble.”

It’s particularly troubling when children are taught to be Cool Cyclists. Last December, a video appeared on the BBC website. It featured a young girl called Maisie with a horrifying story to tell. Cycling to school – along the pavement, as there were no safe cycle paths – she fell, at a junction, into the path of a car which simply drove straight over her. She suffered horrendous injuries; her pelvis was broken in four places.

Maisie’s message to the public? Not that streets should be designed to be safer, nor even that drivers should take more care at junctions – but that cycle helmets should be compulsory. She had, you see, been told that her helmet had saved her life. It was presumably thought to be too much of a Big Ask for a child to expect not to be run over at all. In this mindset, a smashed pelvis is just the consequence that you must accept as punishment for not being in a car; you’re lucky not to be killed. You were asking for it.

Cyclists are doubly disenfranchised. Firstly, we are at unacceptable risk of death or injury. Secondly, the public is encouraged to believe that we are the villains of the piece. We are both victimised and demonised, as out-groups often are.

Recently, the DfT published statistics about road casualties in 2017. Last year, 1793 people died in traffic incidents in the UK, of which 470 were pedestrians (a rise of 5% since last year) and 101 cyclists.  The DfT classifies them both as “vulnerable user groups” since the number of injuries and deaths, per billion miles travelled, is many times higher than for other vehicles.

Three of the pedestrians were killed in incidents involving cyclists; blame is not allocated in the statistics. Since death is unlikely to occur in a collision between two pedestrians, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that collisions with motor vehicles caused the rest.

This didn’t stop several papers from leading on the idea that cyclists were dangerous, and it hasn’t stopped the Government from launching a review of cycle safety which somehow turned into a “review into dangerous cycling” with mutterings about new laws to crack down on it. And again and again and again, when a cyclist is killed, people blame them for being dead.

It’s rather as if the Home Office, when investigating domestic violence (which also kills a hundred or so people a year), were to decide that the most important problem is dangerous women.

The big difference is that, while you cannot literally choose not to be a woman, you can choose not to be a cyclist. And in 98% of trips in the UK, that’s what we do. Why would we put ourselves into such a position? When cyclists are the victims, but presented as the villains? When the roads that our taxes contribute towards don’t make provision for us, but the Transport Secretary himself perpetuates the myth that drivers alone fund the road through what he calls “car tax“?

Any cyclist, surely, should be up in arms at this – but not the Cool Cyclist. He is not marching on Parliament to demand justice for the dead, or clamouring for safer streets, or complaining to the ombudsman about inaccurate reporting, because, like the Cool Girl, the Cool Cyclist never complains.  The powerful, you see, don’t always hate the less powerful. They are sometimes quite happy for them to exist, as long as they don’t answer back. And they’re even happier to accept the ones who support their own disempowerment. No greater enemy of freedom than a happy slave.

If all women were Cool Girls we’d never have got the vote. If all cyclists are Cool Cyclists, most people will choose not to be cyclists, and those of us who do will continue to be killed.